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Don’t expect chivalry from mallard drakes

Northwoods Notebook

Betsy Bloom/Daily News photos

Before winter decided to reassert itself, last Saturday was warm and sunny enough to have a number of animals acting as if spring had arrived.

A painted turtle paddled leisurely around our dock at Six Mile Lake, within a few feet of the still-lingering ice that covers all but the edges and where the creeks connect with the lake. My guess is the sun on the dark shell was enough to keep the cold-blooded reptile moving, though not fast by any means — it mostly floated.

Nearby, in a strip of water opened by Solberg Creek, two drake mallards sparred, whirling after each other like a dog chasing its tail, vying for the attention of a lone female. At one point the trio took off, doing a loop around the lake before returning to the same spot.

While it’s too early to start nesting, the mallards are busy sizing each other up as potential partners. Most varieties of geese and swans maintain mates year-round, so return knowing who they will set up nests with and share in raising young.

The ducks, however, like to play the field each spring. And the mallard is the prime example of having a roving eye, said Laura Erickson of Duluth, Minn., an author who was science editor at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and now is known for her podcast, blog and long-running public radio program, “For the Birds.”

A painted turtle and mallard ducks make their rounds at Six Mile Lake.

The name mallard basically means in old French a male drunkard or sluggard — a reflection that mallard drakes tend to be love ’em and leave ’em types, said Erickson, who plans to write a book on bird mating behaviors. He’ll stick close to a hen long enough to sire her ducklings, but once she’s settled on the nest, he’s gone.

He’s not a gentle partner, either, tending to grip the hen during breeding hard enough to pull feathers. Yet she tolerates that intensity because she needs him around while she assembles her clutch, which can take two weeks of laying an egg a day, Erickson said. Each egg yolk must be fertilized while still high in the oviduct, before the albumin “egg white” and then calcium shell forms to encapsulate it all.

Each egg laid also clears the tract of most previous sperm, Erickson explained, so a new mating is needed for the next egg. The stronger the drake’s interest, the less likely he’ll be to wander off after another female before the process is done, she said.

So hens first lead the males on a merry chase, testing which one really stays focused and persistent, Erickson said.

In return for that short-term commitment, the hen has a hidden reward for her chosen suitor: she can internally reconfigure herself so if another male mates with her, she can prevent that rival’s sperm from reaching an egg, Erickson said.

That trick isn’t always successful, however, leading to mallard broods that can have multiple sires, she said.

Given the length of time needed to put together a clutch, the first egg can be more than a half-month older than the final one. But the cooler temperatures of spring will keep the eggs from developing until the hen finally settles in to brood, Erickson said.

And even if temperatures rise enough to fire up the earlier eggs, those ducklings approaching hatching will peep while still in the shell, spurring the others to accelerate development so they’ll all hatch at about the same time, Erickson said.

By that point, the males will have long since departed, hanging out with other males and molting to a drab, hen-like plumage.

Though perhaps not as rough in style as the mallard, most male ducks follow the same pattern of splitting with their partner once the new generation has been conceived. The exception, Erickson said, are buffleheads, which form monogamous pair bonds that may last for several years.

The black-and-white drakes of this diminutive diving duck often can be seen, along with the common goldeneye, on still-icy waters doing elaborate head throwback and bobbing displays to strengthen the bond. As of this past week, both were still in the region.

*****

Still on the subject of long-term bird bonds, the Seney National Wildlife Refuge in Schoolcraft County reported Tuesday the world’s oldest-known common loon couple have returned.

Male ABJ was banded as a chick in 1987, so it is documented he will be 33 in June, according to a post on the refuge’s Facebook page. However, partner Fe was color-marked while already a breeding bird in 1990, so had to be at least four years old, which would make her at least 34.

These two oldest-known loons have been together since 1997. But Fe — pronounced “Fay” — had been with a different male at least seven years before that and is known to have raised at least 33 chicks to fledgling age. That also makes her the most productive loon on record, according to the refuge.

Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 240, or bbloom@ironmountaindailynews.com.

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